California residents may not know that they live in one of very few states with laws that protect unpaid interns from sexual harassment. In the vast majority of states, there is no protection for unpaid interns because they are not considered employees. As a result, few of those interns complain about sexual harassment because they fear retaliation. Women, who are already disproportionately affected by sexual harassment, also account for about 75 percent of unpaid interns.
Both branches of the Connecticut General Assembly recently passed legislation that will protect interns if the governor signs it into law. It will then join California, Oregon and New York as states that provide full protection from discrimination and sexual harassment to unpaid employees. Washington, D.C., also offers protection. Illinois and Maryland also have laws protecting unpaid interns. Both New Jersey and Michigan have had bills introduced for protection that failed.
At issue is the fact that because unpaid interns do not receive “significant remuneration,” the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does not consider them employees. Therefore, they are not protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Since individuals in California are protected, both paid and unpaid employees may wish to report sexual harassment when it occurs in the workplace. Usually, the first step is to speak to a supervisor or someone in human resources. However, if the workplace does not respond in a way that the individual feels is appropriate or if the person who makes the report feels retaliated against, consultation with an attorney may be advisable. A person who is wrongfully discharged, demoted, denied promotion or face retaliation in some other way due to a sexual harassment complaint or who is forced to continue in a hostile work environment may wish to file a complaint aginst the employer with the appropriate agency.